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Who wants dual-mode handsets? A phone that would work on any system today would have to support GSM / GPRS

Who wants dual-mode handsets? A phone that would work on any system today would have to support GSM / GPRS / EDGE, W-CDMA, IS-95-B, cdma2000 1x and 1 x EV-DO, as well as Wi-Fi

John C. Tanner

The International Telecommunication Union’s original intention for IMT-2000 was the creation of a global third-generation cellular standard that would reject the market fragmentation that gave us GSM, CDMA, TDMA and PDC, which stood in the way of “anytime, anywhere, anyplace” mobile communications. What we ended up with was an “umbrella standard” that allowed operators to deploy whatever third-generation technology they were going to deploy in the first place, with the additional caveat of meeting certain performance criteria (2 Mbps data speeds when standing still, 144 kbps when riding in a bullet train, etc).

Interestingly, the ITU now says this is what it actually had in mind for IMT-2000 all along, which may of may not explain why no IMT-2000 network currently in operation meets any of the aforementioned minimum of maximum data speed requirements under the ITU standard, though EV-DO comes the closest.

Another thing the ITU had in mind after creating multiple 3G standards was the belief that advances in handset technology would take care of the incompatibility problem that keeps GSM users from being able to roam to Japan and Korea, keeps CDMA users from roaming to Europe, and keeps Japanese mobile users from roaming pretty much anywhere. The idea was that dual-mode phones supporting both GSM- and CDMA-based technologies would finally enable true global communications.

Four years later, those handsets are almost here. The first of the dual-mode handsets will arrive sometime early this year, courtesy of China Unicom, which hopes to have at least 300,000 of them ready for sale by mid-year. Motorola, Samsung and LG are tipped to be among the first handset makers to supply them.

Great stuff–but does this really herald the realization of “anytime, anywhere, anyplace” mobile communications? Not exactly. In fact, no one really even talks about that anymore. Unicom certainly isn’t. It sees dual-mode handsets as a way to get its GSM and CDMA users to use both systems–GSM for voice and international roaming, and cdma2000 for highspeed data services.

Shifting expectations

The expectations of dual-mode handsets have changed over the years. For a start, 3G migration has become considerably more complicated from a holistic perspective. A phone that would work on any system today–or at least enough systems to work in any country–would have to support GSM/GPRS/EDGE, W-CDMA, IS-95-B, cdma2000 1x and 1x EVDO. And, for that matter, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Also, in the next five years, standards like EV-DV and TD-SCDMA will likely be on the scene commercially. Software-defined radio technology could make this relatively easier to do, but infrastructure vendors seem more interested in SDR as a way to produce all-purpose base stations that can make 3G migration easier and/or handle multi-carrier environments more cost-effectively.

But assuming all the technological issues could be sorted out, the question remains how keen operators ate to see handsets on the market that could cannibalize part of their business. For rare beasts like Unicom that are already playing both sides of the game, dual-mode handsets make sense. GSM has the ubiquity and the roaming, but the wireless data side pales in comparison to 1x in terms of data capabilities. The reverse is true for cdma2000 1x. A dual-mode handset would give GSM customers improved 1x data capabilities, while 1x users could finally use their handsets outside of the country.

For pure-play GSM or CDMA players, it’s not necessarily so attractive. For one thing, the first wave of handsets will be predictably expensive and possibly glitch-prune–which we have enough of with 3G handsets. Then there are incentive issues for operators. For example, CDMA operators might gain more data users but lose voice users who want GSM roaming. And GSM operators haven’t invested all that money in GPRS just to see their users decide to jump ship to 1x for their data service. That’s all presuming that operators will sell their voice and data services separately, or that end-users would want to buy them from different service providers. If they did, operators could combat that with discounted bundled service packages.

Or not. It will be interesting to see what business models or strategies emerge from the arrival of dual-mode handsets-but the unification of GSM and CDMA isn’t likely to be one of them.

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